As a reasonably recent convert to using walking poles when I hike, I have been open about the fact that I used to think poles were a little bit pointless unless you were walking huge distances or carrying a heavy pack. I was converted when I did just that – walked the West Highland Way with a backpack – but have since found the poles to be useful even when I’m “just” doing day hikes with a light day pack. Over the last two or three years I have found them to be excellent at keeping me upright on rugged terrain, saving my knees on steep descents, and even helping me to do more miles in a day because I can walk a little faster.
I’m not ashamed by my change in opinion. And maintain that it was important for me to share my previous thoughts when I chose to review my OEX trekking poles, my now favourite hiking accessory. I didn’t once look at a fellow hiker and think any less of them because they used poles or question their fitness or ability to be on the trail. Rather, I saw poles as being an unnecessary addition to my own hiking kit – until I tried them properly.
This post isn’t about justifying my change of mind from not wanting poles to attaching them to the outside of my pack as part of my normal routine before heading out on the trail. But rather it is a comment piece following an email I received from my lovely internet friend Shybiker Ralph, sharing an article they had read over on Outside Online, and asking for my opinion. I’m not naive enough to believe that such a thing as trail rage didn’t exist, but I think I have always assumed that the outdoors community, people who love to spend time outside hiking, were a supportive bunch. Apparently that’s not entirely true.
The writer, Sam Morse, speaks of trail rage, and more specifically trekking pole rage. He loves to hike with poles – great – but apparently others seem to think this is uncool, and will quite happily throw snide remarks his way when he’s out enjoying the countryside. I can’t help but wonder what those hikers who make those judgemental comments are making up for, but in reality I know that it’s the same as in any other place in our world, some people are just not very nice.
It extends further. If people are willing to hurl abuse at a guy walking with poles because they look uncool, where does it stop? There are people who prefer trail runners over hiking boots – shall we come up with chants to shout at the other team when we pass them on the footpath? And what about those who like to hike in Teva’s? They need a whole song, right?! How about those who do a long-distance hike but choose to sleep in B&Bs instead of camp, or, dare I suggest it, pay a company to take their bag from stop to stop (which I will happily admit is what I’m likely to do for the Coast to Coast this summer)? Shall we out them as fake? How about those who call eight miles a full day hike? Well that’s just a couple of hours, isn’t it? Certainly not a day! And what about people who have the audacity to call their summer trip an adventure when they don’t even expect to nearly die due to exhaustion? Well they’re not proper outdoorsy people are they? And yes, that last one hits me right in the middle, as I’ve heard something very similar myself.
The more I’ve thought about this article and the topic it represents, the more it has grated on me. The outdoors community, the hiking community, is supposed to be kind and loving and decent. We are the ones who care for our environment, carry our reusable bottles and cutlery and homemade lunches, we pick up litter, mend stone walls, point out a location on a map when someone’s a bit lost, share our water when someone has none, and enjoy conversing with strangers on the trail and in the pub afterwards. Unless someone does something that is unsafe or puts other people in danger – thinking specifically about those who had to be rescued on land and at sea when they went out during Storm Ciara at the weekend despite all the advice not to – then it is not our place to judge them on their choice of gear. It’s quite simple; don’t be a jerk. The outdoors is proven to be good for body, mind and soul – why would we want to ruin that fact for someone we happen to pass on the trail?
Both Sam Morse and Shybiker Ralph, the inspiration for this post, have pointed out that judging others is intrinsically wrong, and they are absolutely spot on. It is not our place to mar the outdoor experiences of others by focusing on how they look. We have no idea of the situation or circumstances of the people we meet when we hike, who are we to judge? Humans are a self-conscious race at the best of times, why would we make that worse? When we are outside, when we enjoy nature, the last thing we want is to be worrying about what we look like. Spending time in the hills or on the coastal paths – with or without poles – should be free from worry and social judgement.
Whether you wear boots or trail runners, sleep in a hammock or a tent, swear by a puffy coat or a fleece, like to hike in shorts or leggings, carry poles or don’t, prefer a water bottle to a bladder, have tea or coffee (or something else) in our flask, that’s all fine. As long as you’re moving, enjoying the outdoors, having fun, making the most of your chosen route, and staying safe, then that’s all that matters. Really. Yes, we can learn a bit from each other on what might be good gear to wear or use, there’s nothing wrong with useful suggestions or even constructive criticism on technique. But that’s it. The absolute number one thing is that you are comfortable, that you can afford the stuff you are using, and that you are enjoying being outside. Done.
I could probably write for days and days on this topic, finding more examples of when people have been chastised for doing their laces a particular way or using a foam sleeping mat instead of a self inflating one. But for my own sanity and wellbeing, I will stop here. I think you get the point. I hate the phrase, but it’s very apt here… you do you. Helping other people is virtuous, but abusing them, even with a seemingly throw away comment, is shameless. Please make the most of your own journey without ruining someone else’s.
If you ever feel like staying in because someone else has said something to make you feel self-conscious, or because you don’t feel like you look like everyone else on the trail, please reach out and come and say hi. I will do my very best to encourage and motivate you again.